The pandemic is speeding up automation, putting jobs in question

Forced to tighten their belts financially by the coronavirus pandemic, businesses are increasingly using software that automates back-office tasks.

The technology handles repetitive duties like filling in numbers in a spreadsheet or matching invoice data to payment orders. The idea, of course, is for companies to save money by reducing the number of workers they need to handle clerical work.

Although the technology, called robotic process automation, or RPA, has existed for years, recent advances in machine learning and natural language processing have made it possible for it to do more complicated tasks. That includes deciphering financial jargon in PDF documents, analyzing that data, and then using it to fill in information in spreadsheets, which is helpful for cataloging invoices, among other tasks.

Mihir Shukla, CEO of Automation Anywhere, which sells RPA software, pointed to the financial industry as among the many adopting the technology. He cited unspecified banks that are using the technology to help process the flood of small business loans that were handed out by the federal government. 

“It would have taken two years to change 6 million records without the bots,” Shukla said. 

Echoing what other executives have told Fortune, Shukla said that companies have recently cut spending on big IT projects that have no quick payoff. But as Fortune CEO Alan Murray has previously written, RPA projects, in contrast, are “low-hanging fruit, with a potential for quick savings.”

The job-killing aspect of RPA is a sensitive topic. Rather than eliminating jobs, companies that sell the technology prefer to say that it lets customers shift their workers to more creative and higher-paying roles.

But He Wang, a healthcare analyst for CB Insights, recently told Fortune that some companies are primarily interested in automation tech to reduce spending on “human capital,” i.e. people. The pandemic is merely speeding up the phenomenon. 

Jonathan Vanian 

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